The Owl House is an animated television series that aired on the Disney Channel from 2020 to 2023. The series follows Luz, a teenage Dominican-American human who finds a portal to the Demon Realm. She lands on the Boiling Isles, an island archipelago populated with magical creatures. There, Luz befriends a middle-aged witch named Edalyn “Eda” Clawthorne (also known as Eda the Owl Lady), and her housemate/adoptive son King, a cute dog-like demon with a skull for a head. Eda agrees to teach Luz magic. Magic is then used as a narrative prosthesis (McReynolds) to explore themes of inclusion and belonging. Our particular focus in this article is disability. Disability is represented in The Owl House in several ways, but most explicitly through Eda’s curse. Eda lives with a curse that turns her into an Owl Beast when not controlled by an elixir (a form of medication). Eda is the most powerful witch on the Boiling Isles and also its most wanted criminal. Yet, she also brings with her significant insight through her experience of living with her curse.
Throughout this article, we draw on key concepts of critical disability studies in order to explore the way representations of familial relationships in The Owl House, both chosen and biological, are used as vehicles to subvert compulsory able-bodiedness, and therefore demonstrate affirmative notions of disability. As a field, critical disability studies respond to the limitations of both the medical model of disability, which sees impairments as the basis of disability, and the social model, which locates disability within society’s failure to accommodate bodily difference. Critical disability studies recognise disability as a complex web of physical, social, cultural, and political forces that work together to create disability.
The affirmative model of disability is central to our discussion. This model takes a “non-tragic view of disability and impairment, which encompasses positive social identities, both individual and collective, for disabled people grounded in the benefits of lifestyle and life experience of being impaired” (Swain and French 569). The affirmative model recognises both positive and negative aspects of disability and, through its focus on identity and community, gives people with disability space to claim a positive individual and group identity. This disability identity is constructed outside the discourse of contemporary able-bodiedness and has its own benefits. Throughout The Owl House, Eda and Luz create a community of outsiders and then, like the affirmative model, celebrate and value the characteristics that prompted their exclusion.
Found families are tight-knit groups created by choice rather than through traditional bio-legal ties (Levin et al. 1). The provenance of this concept stems from the central role of friendship in the lives of queer people rejected by their biological family (Levin et al. 1): when many terminally ill queer patients with HIV/AIDS were abandoned by their biological families, they were often cared for by friends, elevating “the relationship from friendship to something more; an iteration of family” (Levin et al. 2). However, this queering of the traditional kinship structure is not solely an LGBTQIA+ experience: Alternative caregiving and kinship frameworks have “been shown to run parallel along multiple, intersecting lines of social disenfranchisement” (Levin et al. 2), including in disability communities.
The Owl House subverts the traditional normative social unit of the biological family, instead privileging (at least initially) “chosen” or “found” family based on platonic care. Eda’s found family members, King and Luz, demonstrate an expanded “notion of kinship” (‘Caring Kinships’ 21), borne out of mutual experiences of rejection from their families and/or societies of origin. Eda, King, and Luz are self-identified “weirdos”, often proclaiming, “us weirdos have to stick together”. Though Eda is rebellious and outwardly confident, she is an outcast in the Boiling Isles. As a “wild witch,” Eda is breaking the law by refusing to conform to the mandatory oppressive coven system of the Boiling Isles. Because of her outlaw status and curse, Eda tends to isolate herself from the rest of society. She is often evasive and keeps people from getting close to her, avoiding her biological family, and keeping emotional distance from romantic interests. King also has a tenuous relationship with his place in society, struggling to understand his identity after being taken in by Eda at a young age. He has never seen another demon like him and has little recollection of his life before Eda. Finally, Luz was an outcast of her own in the human world. Before finding her way to the Boiling Isles, she often felt misunderstood, with her mother planning to send her to “Reality Check Summer Camp: Think Inside the Box”. The three characters find acceptance and allyship with one another, forming their own familial unit.
This allyship is integral to Eda’s progression into self-acceptance. After sharing the secret of her curse with King and Luz, Eda gradually begins to open herself up to receiving help and support. As the series progresses, Eda finds herself taking on a caregiver role to both King and Luz, often referring to them as “the kids”. King even legally changed his name to King Clawthorne, so their family ties could be official. Though at this Eda’s life becomes more complex than it was when she isolated herself – due to her sense of responsibility for the kids – it also proves to be more fulfilling: Eda’s closeness to King and Luz leads her to make amends with her sister, rekindle an old relationship, and reconnect with her father.
The queer, alternative kinship structure of The Owl House also creates a backdrop for themes of resistance to normative expectations. For example, in the society of the Boiling Isles, witches must join a coven and give up all other forms of magic; humans are not able to practice magic; and those cursed must long for a cure. However, within the home boundaries of the Owl House, these normative expectations are defied. Eda is a “wild witch” who refuses to conform to the oppressive coven system; Luz learns magic through non-traditional methods and eventually teaches these to Eda when her curse takes away her own magic; and Eda later accepts her curse as part of herself, while discovering the benefits it can bring. These alternative ways of living eventually extend to the outside of the house: as the family fight for a better future for everyone on the Boiling Isles, this action becomes central in dismantling the oppressive mandatory coven system. Eda eventually founded the University of Wild Magic to mentor students to express magic in their own way – a direct opposition to the former coven system –, with Luz attending as a student. Overall, Eda’s chosen family are integral not only to her personal journey to self-acceptance but to the subversion of norms outside the private realm for the betterment and freedom of the wider community.
The character arc of Lilith, Eda’s older sister, depicts the pressure of ‘compulsory able-bodiedness’, and the importance of community and allyship in dismantling this ideology. The logic of compulsory able-bodiedness upholds able-bodiedness as the norm that everyone must strive toward (Siebers). As a result, compulsory-able-bodiedness perpetuates the idea that people with disability must change themselves to meet (often unnecessary and unrealistic) able-bodied standards, such as being independent, thus positioning interdependence as inferior (Swain and French 573). Lilith’s character arc shows her progression from living without a curse, to acquiring a curse and dismantling her beliefs about able-bodiedness through the help of her allies.
At the beginning of the series, Lilith is an antagonist working for the Emperor’s Coven and wants to capture Eda for being a coven-less witch. It is later revealed Lilith was the one who cursed Eda in the first place: as a child, feeling jealous and threatened by Eda’s skill, Lilith secretly placed a curse on her sister so she would lose the tryouts for a place in the prestigious Emperor’s Coven. However, on the day of the tryouts, Eda forfeits, preferring to remain coven-less and practise all kinds of magic. The curse then begins to take place, transforming Eda into the Owl Beast. To Lilith’s horror, the curse was not temporary, but lifelong. The audience then finds out that Lilith, motivated by guilt, worked her way up to a senior role in the Emperor’s Coven because the Emperor promised her a cure for Eda. Later in the series, this promise is revealed to be false, and Lilith rebels against the Emperor. After proving herself trustworthy, Lilith casts a pain-sharing spell on her sister, allowing her to take on half of Eda’s curse. This is the catalyst for their reconnection and the beginning of Lilith’s redemption arc.
Upon acquiring the curse – which, for Lilith, takes the form of a raven – Lilith initially feels a loss of identity. She formerly placed her self-worth on her powerful magic and her high-profile job, neither of which she now has. In Season 2, Episode 1, Lilith is shown struggling with this change in self-perception, asking herself: “Who am I without magic? Without a coven?” When she first starts experiencing the symptoms of her curse, she rejects offers of help because she feels the need to prove her independence – perhaps the ultimate ideal of compulsory able-bodiedness. However, Lilith eventually admits she needs help and can’t do it alone. Together, Eda and Lilith create their own form of disability community. Thanks to Luz and King, Eda is now more receptive to letting people in and is happy to support her sister with her emerging curse symptoms. Eventually, Lilith finds that “failing” to live up to able-bodied expectations frees her of certain societal expectations (Swain and French 574–575). Instead of leading through fear in an oppressive coven, Lilith pursues her passion as a historian and becomes a curator at the Supernatural Museum of History. Her experiences also motivate her to dismantle the oppressive coven system along with Eda and their chosen family.
The character arc of Eda and Lilith’s mother, Gwendolyn, works to challenge the personal tragedy model of disability. This model of disability dominates cultural beliefs and media representations, perpetuating the idea that happiness and disability are mutually exclusive (Swain and French 572–573). Viewing disability as inherently tragic can also engender “paternalistic or condescending ableism” from non-disabled people, which elicits “behaviours that infantilize, overprotect, and take control” of people with disability, whom they presume to be unduly dependent (Nario-Redmond 337). This infantilisation has real-world consequences for people with a disability, including justification of “the sheltered regulation of disabled lives ‘for their own good’” (Nario-Redmond 337). In The Owl House, Gwendolyn initially holds these paternalistic views of her daughter’s curse. However, they are then subverted by the narrative development of the series, demonstrating the effect that Gwendolyn’s ableism (and eventual acceptance) has on her daughter.
Gwendolyn is portrayed as the initial source of Eda’s shame about her curse. Episode 4 of Season 2, “Keeping Up A-Fear-Ances”, begins with a flashback of young Eda telling her mother and a healer about her recurring nightmare of the Owl Beast. Afterwards, young Eda overhears the healer suggesting that Gwendolyn consult the Potions Coven to keep the curse at bay. Gwendolyn is horrified at this suggestion, exclaiming, “Keep it at bay?! Oh no, my daughter is suffering, and I want that thing out! Cut it out if you have to”. Eda then runs away, afraid of what her mother will do to her. This highlights Gwendolyn’s deep-rooted belief that her daughter’s curse is inherently shameful. Although as the central plot develops Eda is now a grown witch in her 40s, Gwendolyn is still consumed with finding a cure for her daughter, despite Eda’s claims to the contrary. One day, Gwendolyn shows up at the Owl House, proclaiming, “Today I shall be curing your curse!”, to which Eda flatly replies, “No thanks”, explaining she is fine with her elixir system. Gwendolyn has been visiting Eda yearly with new hopes for a cure, and she blames the curse, rather than her own ableist beliefs, for the rift between her and her daughter. Gwendolyn explains to Luz that she has been studying under Master Wartlop, an expert healer specialising in curses. However, after procuring a book of cures from Wartlop – none of which work on Eda – Luz realises Gwendolyn has been scammed. At this point, Gwendolyn reveals she has stolen all of Eda’s elixirs and begins to spout anti-potion rhetoric. Luz and Gwendolyn begin to argue, and the stress triggers Eda’s Owl Beast, which she cannot control without her elixir. Lilith also transforms into her Raven Beast for the first time. Gwendolyn flies back to Wartlop for answers, only to realise that he is not a magic healer, but four gremlins in a costume. When Gwendolyn returns to her daughters, both of whom are now fighting each other in Beast form, she admits:
My beautiful daughters, I failed you. Edalyn … I should’ve listened to you. I know now why you pushed me away. I made you think your curse was something to be ashamed of. Whether we want it or not, it’s a part of you. And I love every part of you. I’m so sorry.
Hearing this apology from her mother enables Eda to momentarily take control of her curse, allowing her to help her sister. Luz and King then pour elixir onto the sisters, transforming them back into witches.
Subverting the Miracle Cure
The Owl House subverts the “miracle cure” trope of disability often found in media, wherein a cure – whether through divine intervention, medicine, or technology – is the most desirable ending for a (deserving) disabled character (Norden 73). By doing so, the series highlights values inherent to the affirmative model of disability, such as connectedness and interdependence.
In Season 2, Episode 8, Eda finally confronts her curse after a lifetime of running. After accidentally eating a cookie laced with sleeping nettles, she experiences heightened dreams. Eda has a history of recurring dreams in which she is being haunted by her curse. In the dream, Eda angrily confronts her curse – which takes the form of an owl living in her subconscious – and they begin fighting. Eda blames the owl for her problems and screams at it to stop ruining her life. The stress of this confrontation causes Eda and the owl to merge, forming the Owl Beast. Later in the dream, the Beast is captured and falls into the ocean as it tries to escape, separating Eda and the owl into their own forms once again. They wash up on the shore and the owl, now much smaller, is trying to fly away. However, it is too exhausted, eventually falling onto the sand in a crumpled heap. As the owl struggles to breathe, Eda tentatively approaches it and pats it on the head, softly telling it, “It’s okay”. After this gesture of kindness towards the owl, a bottle of elixir washes up at their feet, and Eda says:
I thought these [elixirs] were a way to fight you, but I think they're the reason we can stand here, face to face. Listen, neither of us want to be here, but, we are, and there's no changing that. If we can't accept each other, this nightmare will never end. So, what do you say? Truce?
Eda pours some elixir into her hand and offers it to the owl, who drinks it, and then climbs into Eda’s lap, falling asleep peacefully. As Eda softly pets the owl, the dark black sky transforms into swirling lights of colour, and Eda says, “Wow … I’ve never had a dream this pretty”. As Eda embraces the owl, the two begin to levitate, and the dream fades out. Upon waking, Eda finds she has transformed into a harpy – part witch, part owl – as a physical manifestation of her embracing (literally and metaphorically) her curse. When she sees her reflection in the mirror, Eda wolf whistles at herself approvingly, exclaiming, “Oh girl, this is a hot look!” Eda later learns to transform into a harpy at will, and her new liminal form challenges her previously naturalised boundary between the self (the witch) and the other (the curse). Eda is no longer a witch cursed by an owl, but a witch and an owl. Though she still drinks the elixir, Eda begins to accept herself and the owl as connected parts of each other.
Rather than perpetuating the idea of a cure as the most desirable ending, The Owl House provides Eda with an alternative solution to her curse: what McReynolds terms a “prosthetic relationship”. McReynolds argues that the traditional concept of prosthesis can be expanded to include anything that “allows a body to function in an environment for which it is overwise unequipped” (115). In this way, Eda and the owl form two halves of an entirely new whole: their relationship becomes defined by affirmative values of connectedness and interdependence rather than normative, able-bodied ideals of independence and bodily control.
This article explores the role of Eda’s chosen family (Luz and King), as well as her biological family (her sister Lilith and mother Gwendolyn), in representing affirmative ideas of disability. The affirmative model of disability gives people with disability space to claim their disability as a valid and valuable identity. Throughout the article, we argue that Eda’s curse is representative of disability. The progression from shame to acceptance to pride depicted in this series offers an important representation of disability: one which, in line with critical disability studies, responds to the limitations of both the medical and social models of disability. Indeed, The Owl House embraces an affirmative model of disability, recognising the importance of disability, identity, and community.
While we have focused on Eda’s curse and familial relationships in this article, future studies could consider audience responses to The Owl House, and particularly those of audiences with disability and neurodiversity identifying with this animated series. The Owl House subverts traditional narratives of disability grounded in compulsory able-bodiedness and instead uses magic to depict a pragmatic view of disability grounded in acceptance and affirmation.
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